SoftBank Will Go International with Satellite Strategy

Article By : Dan Jones

MNO SoftBank is the latest player to get into the satellite game, unveiling a 3-pronged strategy with partners.

Japanese Mobile Network Operator (MNO) SoftBank Corp is hanging some of its future on services that are delivered from space and can serve customers far beyond its home market of Japan.

The SoftBank satellite plan has three main elements — a geostationary (GEO) plan to provide low bandwidth IoT services from space, a low Earth orbit (LEO) microsatellite system that offers low-cost service compared to GEO satellites, along with high-altitude drones to deliver 4G and 5G mobile communications to underserved areas.

In June, SoftBank unveiled a Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) strategy that will deliver a variety of services via satellites and stratospheric drones. This is part of SoftBank’s “Beyond Japan” initiative, according to Matthew Nicholson, a spokesman for SoftBank Corp.

(Source: SoftBank)

SoftBank will use the services of OneWeb, Skylo, and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile subsidiary to deliver a variety of services via satellites and unmanned vehicles that fly in the near-space stratosphere. Nicholson says that SoftBank will use satellites to offer services around the world. The operator says that its NTN lineup will offer advantages to meet the diverse needs of customers.

OneWeb’s LEO satellite-based services make it possible for businesses, consumers, and governments around the world to enjoy faster communication services with less latency compared to traditional GEO satellite services.

Earlier this year, OneWeb secured funding from SoftBank’s parent company, SoftBank Group Corp, after OneWeb emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2020, having been bought by the U.K government and India’s Bharti Global.

In May this year, the Japanese MNO agreed to use OneWeb’s satellites. The latest batch of OneWeb LEO satellites was launched on May 28, 2021. The company plans to offer full global coverage with its satellites by the end of 2022.

SoftBank Group Corp is also bolstering IoT satellite startup Skylo, having led its $103 million series B funding round on June 21, 2020. Skylo plans to use satellites to deliver NB-IoT to connect to gateways on earth. Skylo is working with Inmarsat to get its technology into geostationary satellites, while the SoftBank Group is helping to get the company established in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.

Skylo is already running NB-IoT services in India with Inmarsat.

The MNO Softbank Corp. intends to use Skylo’s NB-IoT network to provide IoT connectivity for fishing, mining, shipping, and other industries “at more affordable prices than traditional GEO satellite services,” the carrier says. It hasn’t yet offered any further details.

Alan Crisp, senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, however, has good words to say about Skylo’s GEO-based NB-IoT strategy.

“I find SkyLo’s strategy a stronger proposition for very low bandwidth IoT,” the analyst tells EE Times. “This is compared to the very large number of small satellite constellations which we are tracking which are going after their same market — and we only expect a few of these survive longer term. Rather than competing against dozens of competitors with a potential race to the bottom to expand market share, SkyLo working with existing infrastructure sidesteps this issue.”

“Ultra-narrowband solutions, often combined with high latency, are perfectly suited to a surprising number of applications. We expect agriculture customers to be the largest buyer of these type of solutions. This would include large and small agriculture businesses for crop yields, animal tracking, as well as heavy equipment manufacturers such as John Deere or Caterpillar for instance,” Crisp continues.

The analyst expects that other customer uses will include those involved with transport and cargo as well as maritime use cases. “With applications including fishing buoys, cargo shipping, rental car tracking, personal location tracking devices and more,” Crisp concludes.

Perhaps the most audacious element of the NTN plan, though, is SoftBank’s joint venture with AiroViroment to create massive stratospheric drones that can serve up 4G LTE and 5G to mobile devices without the need for any special equipment, even if their region lacks traditional communications infrastructure.

In April 2019, SoftBank launched the High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) project through its subsidiary HAPSMobile Inc. The company’s Sunglider drone, which has a wingspan of 78 meters, succeeded in its first stratospheric test flight on October 8, 2020.

SoftBank spokesman Matthew Nicholson says that the plan is to fly this drone 20 kilometers above the earth for several months to deliver a mobile service that can cover up to 200 kilometers for smartphone users. The HAPS system would be used to provide coverage in regions without much terrestrial infrastructure, in disaster recovery situations, as well as other applications.

The SoftBank spokesman adds that HAPSMobile hopes to start launches by 2023. Testing has already shown that the drone can deliver 4G LTE coverage from the sky. HAPSMobile will, however, need help from the ITU in sorting out the high altitude spectrum situation. The venture says it will use high-frequency spectrum for the Feeder Link between ground stations and the lofty drones, while the Service Link will use spectrum that existing smartphones can connect to, in the appropriate country or region.

HAPSMobile will be participating in the ITU’s World Radiocommunications Conference in 2023 (WRC ‘23) to hammer out the spectrum issues.

SoftBank’s space challenge

Despite the flashy launch of SoftBank’s NTN scheme early in June, we do not yet know much about who will actually use the service. SoftBank spokesman Matthew Nicholson says that so far the carrier is talking to global MNOs and government agencies about using the NTN program.

Still, while Elon Musk and other billionaires claim they will toss mountains of moolah into establishing LEO satellite swarms (and keep them in orbit!), the three-pronged SoftBank plan, which will use geostationary and low-earth orbit satellites, as well as near-space unmanned vehicles to provide service, might actually prove to be less of a risk than pure LEO constellations.

Whether SoftBank can get or maintain all the pieces in service around the earth is another matter.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

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